The Colville Tribes’ canoe was the first to land, June 22, before the Kettle Falls 2019 First Salmon Ceremony.

Canoe journey ends with ceremony at traditional fishery

KETTLE FALLS - The Colville Confederated Tribes’ canoe was the first to shore, June 22 just after 10 a.m. near Kettle Falls along the western banks of Lake Roosevelt on the Columbia River, finishing the 2019 journey to the location that was once the largest fishery in the region. 

Over the previous seven days, the canoe had traveled with others from the Crescent Bay Boat Launch only a half-mile above Grand Coulee Dam, a distance of approximately 100 miles. Additional canoes traveled south from British Columbia, crossing the international boundary.

When they landed, Colville tribal member Crystal Conant then called the fellow canoes to shore, introducing each by their traditional name.

On the shore together, tribal members held a first salmon ceremony, calling salmon back to Kettle Falls.

“Ceremonies like this have to be done,” said tribal elder Richard Armstrong. “The rocks you clack together, that is the language of the salmon. When we throw them into the river, they hear that. It speaks to the salmon.”

Colville tribal member Robert “Cubby” Lonebear worked as a translator, calling out the speeches of those who stepped forward.

Along with several smaller sturgeon nose canoes, canoes from The Kalispel, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Kootenai Tribe of Idaho joined the Colvilles. Another canoe, called the “Free the

 Snake Canoe” joined the tribal flotilla.

The ceremony is known as one of the oldest on the Columbia River.

Early explorer David Thompson witnessed the ceremony in June 1811.

He wrote, “It was the local custom to allow fish to pass for a certain number of days once the run began. During this time a single fisher with a spear was allowed to take a limited number of salmon. Soon the salmon chief would open a general fishery, which was conducted with nets and baskets.”

But the construction of Grand Coulee Dam ended the migration of salmon into the upper reaches of the Columbia River in 1942.

In 2016, the Upper Columbia United Tribes, the Inchelium Language and Culture Association and the Arrow Lakes Aboriginal Society launched an initiative to reestablish the tradition, bringing together the canoe families of the different tribes at Kettle Falls once again.

UCUT donated cedar logs to each of the tribes of the upper Columbia, and each community carved individual canoes for the journey.

“We gather here today to honor our ancestors, to stand on this ground to say, ‘We remember,’” said Spokane tribal member Margo Hill. “We remember our ways… We pray for our salmon. We sweat and we pray for our river. We are pitiful, because we live easy lives, and this easy life with plastics and telephones, it makes us weak. Our ancestors were very strong people. They ate from the earth, the berries, the deer meat. They were strong, and we stand here today to remember that we are pitiful, but we find strength in our sacred grounds. When we find strength and prayers we find strength in each other.”

The group released 50 sturgeon back into the reservoir.

“When we traveled from Coulee Dam, I couldn’t help but think that we were like the salmon coming up to the Kettle Falls,” said Annette Peone, Coeur d’Alene tribal member. “These canoes are embedded in our hearts. I think about the children, that they are coming up in these canoes and they will carry it on for us. They are strong. The youth are very smart and capable. I think of the people who left our journey a little early, and all those that passed on before us.”

A feast, give away and name giving was held following the ceremony at the water. The group will host salmon ceremonies on June 24 and Revelstoke on June 25.

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